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CHAPTER 2

The look of annoyance Teeghan Rhys, captain of the USS Pathfinder, and one of the youngest commanding officers in Starfleet, was trying to hide was in direct proportion to how tight her dress was. Which meant at this moment she felt like someone was trying to stuff her body through an annular confinement beam without deconstructing her molecules first. Rhys kept smoothing her hands along the white, pearl adorned bodice that threatened to compress her insides to half of their normal size as if that might somehow help. Despite her protests Counselor Sefara had insisted they dress as period appropriate as possible, and since she wanted to be a good sport Rhys had relented. She had not anticipated that getting ready for this holodeck excursion would take longer than any other event in her life. Sefara helped her tie the bodice shut, which she regretted because she was certain if she had tried to do it herself it would be considerably less tight, and helped her get her hair in order.

It was a lot of preparation for someone like Rhys, who liked to look nice but preferred to keep things as simple as possible. She was an attractive and confident woman, but in the Victorian garb she wore with her chestnut hair gathered up and cascading down her neck like a waterfall she looked absolutely stunning. The style fully revealed the exotic trail of light brown spots that trailed down her neck and shoulders and gave her away as a Trill. She didn't feel stunning, she felt constricted. When they reached the entrance to the holodeck Rhys adjusted the bodice by running her thumbs between the confining fabric and her body. She was almost certain there would be indents in her skin for weeks.

"The more you mess with it the worse it is going to feel," Sefara said through idle observation.

"How in the hell did the women on your planet survive this?" Rhys complained.

A smile graced Sefara's Mediterranean features, framed by long, thick ebony hair, and made them glow. She looked down at her own dress which was done in the same style as her captain's but in gold and seemed to think about the question for a moment before finally saying, "Shallow breathing."

"If I breath any shallower I'll be visiting Dr. Damar in sickbay," she rolled her eyes and tried to straighten the torturous garment, hoping that would provide some relief.

"And telling him what treatment to provide," Sefara quipped.

Rhys shot the counselor a questioning look, one eyebrow was sharply arched. She looked down at the dress grumpily but stopped messing with it. "I'm getting better."

"Computer," Sefara said while giving her captain a knowing smile. "Load program Sefara twenty-three."

"Program loaded. You may enter when ready."

The two ladies stepped into the holodeck and left the twenty-fifth century behind them as they were swallowed up by a Victorian-era ballroom. Its polished floor reflected light from the improbably high ceilings, in the distance a grand double staircase led to a balcony where participants could linger without disturbing those on the dance floor. Classic instrumental music added a perfect tone for the scene as attendees, who Rhys assumed were lords and ladies of ancient Earth, who danced in front of them with computer generated perfection.

"This is your idea of letting your hair down?" Rhys questioned Sefara while taking in their ornate surroundings with raised brows. She certainly liked the music, Rhys was particularly fond of the cello. Learning to play was a skill she had always meant to develop but had never found the time for.

"I find the music soothing and the motion of the dance steps helps me concentrate," Sefara explained. "Focusing on the movements helps me to direct my mind toward a single problem."

"My father used to take me fishing," Rhys said as they stopped on the edge of the dance floor proper. The smile on her face grew fond as she glanced at Sefara. "He got the idea from a captain he served under during the Dominion War. I guess he used to take his son fishing on Earth, there was a holodeck program with a bridge they would fish off of together. I enjoyed the quiet, and getting to put my feet in the water."

"You sound as if you were quite the tomboy growing up," Sefara said, watching couples dance past them. On the periphery of the ballroom she spotted two gentlemen studying them, both quite tall and undeniably handsome. The computer did not disappoint. She dipped her head to them with a polite smile.

Rhys considered her comment for a moment before answering. "I grew up with three older brothers. I think that behavior translates no matter what culture you come from. I learned to stand up for myself, and I learned to like the outdoors, but I don't think it made me any less of a woman."

As the two women turned and began walking along the edge of the ballroom the gentlemen who had been observing them approached from behind. On closer inspection there was a slight difference in height between them, though neither could be considered short, and both were dressed in Victorian finery. The taller of the two had blond hair with a sculpted mustache, his companion was dark haired and clean shaven.

"Might you ladies be inclined to dance?" Blond asked, respectfully and lightly touching his hand upon the middle of Rhys's back to gain her attention. His companion hovered at Sefara's side with a genial smile.

The touch startled Rhys and prompted her to turn to face him. She opened her mouth to comment but made no sound, she was taken aback by how handsome a man the computer had created. That was the problem though, he was computer generated. He wasn't real, yet she found herself smiling cordially and the urge to slip into character took over. Rhys offered her hand, which he promptly took, and she watched him lay a kiss upon her fingers. "I would love to dance, my lord," she said, perhaps overplaying it a bit.

"Enjoy yourself, Captain," Sefara said as the dark haired stranger swept her away into the crowd.

Rhys smiled at her dance partner as he took her hand in his, touched his hand to the small of her back, and turned with a step onto the dance floor while pulling her along with him. She placed her hand upon his shoulder and made eye contact, though her steps were considerably less sure than her gaze. Ballroom dancing was not her forte but she was certainly going to do her best.

"Captain?" He asked, gazing down at her. "A strange name for a woman, for surely you are not captain of any vessel."

Rhys arched a brow, their attitudes were certainly period. She smiled though and let him lead her through the crowd, each step becoming easier than the last. "A jest between friends," she said. "My name is Teeghan, what's yours?"

"Thomas," he said, his smile too charming to be anything other than computer generated. "Sir Thomas Nelville III. You dance very well, Lady Teeghan."

He was almost certainly programmed to say that because she knew she was dancing horribly. Rhys found it difficult to see him as anything other than a hologram and lose herself in the fantasy. Men were simply not this perfect, and she wondered why the computer did not create them with inherent flaws. He had not stepped on her feet once and she had lost count of the number of times she had stepped on his toes. She looked across the ballroom and spotted Sefara talking with her holographic beau and giving him a demure look. Rhys knew she would have told her to relax and accept it for the fun that it was. Her train of thought was suddenly derailed when her dance partner shifted positions to put his face in her light of sight.

"Oh, sorry," Rhys apologized. "I was just thinking. What were you saying?"

A real man may have been slightly put off. Instead this too-perfect illusion gave her an alluring smile and clutched her tighter, then he dipped her back far enough that her cascading hair nearly touched the floor. He locked gazes with her, his stare intense. "I said your beauty was ravishing and you dance wonderfully."

Rhys held his gaze for a moment and tried once more, in all seriousness, to find enjoyment in the illusion. Instead she began to laugh, loudly, and her head fell back even further. The bewildered look her holographic partner gave her made her laugh even harder, and when she realized the music had stopped and everyone was staring at her she began to shake in an uncontrollable fit of snickering. Sir Thomas straightened up with her and continued to look confused as she pulled away and clasped a hand over her mouth. Upon noticing Sefara approaching with a concerned look she started to wave her off and get her chortling under control.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Rhys exclaimed. "It's just so funny. He's so fake!"

"What do you mean I am fake?" protested the hologram. "You have a very peculiar sense of humor, Lady Teeghan. It is not polite to insult a member of court."

Rhys swallowed back rising laughter and tried to look at him with a serious face. "You're right. Of course, I'm very"”" she said, trying to apologize, but she lost control and began to giggle almost like a child. When she saw Sefara staring at her with a raised brow she swallowed back her giggling and placed a hand on her friend's shoulder.

"Counselor, I'm so very sorry," she said.

Sefara finally cracked a grin and chuckled, "You are right, they are a bit too perfect, but I find it all in fun."

"I do not understand!" Thomas protested louder. "You say I am perfect as if it is a bad thing."

Before Rhys could reply and attempt to sooth his ego a red alert klaxon began to sound in the corridor. Her first officer's gruff voice interrupted them overhead. "Red alert. Captain Rhys to the bridge."

"I'm sorry, Counselor. I'm going to have to cut this short, but thank you for the diversion," she said, still grinning. Sefara dipped her head, looking amused. Rhys turned and left the holographic ballroom at a brisk walk, answering loud enough for the internal comm system to pick her up. "Rhys to bridge, acknowledged. I'm on my way."


The last thing Commander L'Gran expected to see when he turned upon hearing the turbolift doors open was his commanding officer in a Victorian gown. His long tail stopped its slight twitching and the dark furred Caitian studied her with an arched brow. One by one the bridge crew followed suit and most activity stopped. It didn't go unnoticed by Rhys. She looked from station to station and held up the hem of her dress so she didn't trip on it while walking down the two steps to the center of the bridge. L'Gran was standing between the two seats placed in the exact center and stepped slightly to his left as Rhys approached.

Kai Joval, the Pathfinder's operations officer, and Ikari Tanaka, her tactical officer, were staring not so much out of rudeness but because they had never seen their captain wearing anything so ostentatious. Ensign Addison Rae McKenna, fresh from the Academy with brilliant red hair, turned in her seat to see what everyone else was staring at and despite L'Gran's hard stance on proper decorum said, "That's a gorgeous dress, ma'am."

"Thank you, Ensign," Rhys said easily as she stopped in front of her seat. She returned L'Gran's look with an arched brow of her own and then glanced at Tanaka and Joval. "What do you gentlemen do in your time off? Haven't you ever seen a woman in a dress before?"

"My apologies, Captain," Tanaka said quickly, his eastern accent respectful. Joval joined him as the two looked down at their respective consoles.

"Well, what've we got?" Rhys said, her expression lightening with a goodnatured grin as she looked at L'Gran.

"We received a distress call from the IKS T'Acog," L'Gran's rough voice was part baritone and part rumble. The sound sometimes reminded Rhys of a pet she used to have. "We have altered course to intercept."

"Stand down red alert," Rhys ordered while turning to look at Tanaka, then McKenna at the conn. "Take us to yellow alert and maintain present course. Time to intercept?"

"Sixty minutes at warp nine, Ma'am."

"Captain," L'Gran interrupted, taking a polite step forward as he always did when he gave her counsel. "We are currently at war with the Klingon Empire. It could be a trap, are you certain going to yellow alert is wise?"

Rhys took a breath and turned to stare at the main viewer, watching the stars flash by as the ship hurtled through space. She put her hands on her hips and considered his advice carefully before speaking. "Mister Joval, anything on long range sensors?"

"Not much, Captain," he said, scrutinizing his console. "They appear to be adrift, but the readings I'm getting are inconclusive. There's been some kind of energy discharge but we're too far out for the sensors to distinguish what kind, and the extent of the damage."

She pursed her lips and then looked at L'Gran, "You're right. It could be a trap, but they could also be seriously hurt. Lieutenant Tanaka, maintain yellow alert but raise our shields. I'm going to my quarters to get out of this torture rack. I want all senior officers to convene in the conference room in thirty minutes, notify Command and get me everything Starfleet Intelligence has on the T'Acog."

"Aye captain."

L'Gran nodded his head, satisfied with their compromise and stepped to the side to allow Rhys clear passage to the turbolift. She patted him on the shoulder as she went past, saying, "If you register a phaser discharge that's just me trying to get this damn thing off."


As much as she enjoyed holodeck excursions Rhys was certain she would never wear a dress like that again in her life. She was still aching by the time she and her senior staff had gathered in the conference room, and she had resisted the urge to scan herself with a medical tricorder to make sure every organ was in its proper place. But at least she was back in uniform; she had left the charcoal and light grey jacket undone, exposing the red turtleneck underneath. Rhys sat down at the head of the angular table with L'Gran on her right and the Pathfinder's second officer, and chief engineer, Lieutenant Commander P'rek Shen on her left. The tall Andorian had a serious, almost standoffish, demeanor on first glance but was as loyal to his ship and captain as they came. Beside him were Lieutenant Commander Kai Joval, a brilliant young man of South African descent with an easy smile, and Doctor Damar Elias, the chief medical officer, whose nose ridges showed his proud Bajoran heritage and precision trimmed dark beard suggested a man who was meticulous about his life. On L'Gran's right sat Lieutenant Kai Tanaka who stopped looking at the pinpoint trail of stars out the observation windows and focused all of his attention on his fellow officers.

"What do we know about the T'Acog?" Rhys asked, looking at each of them in turn while leaning back in her seat and crossing on leg over the other.

"Not nearly as much as we'd like," Joval answered in his distinctive accent. He turned his chair to the right so that he faced Rhys while speaking to her, one hand clasped in the other, while leaning nonchalantly to the right. "It has a crew of fifteen-hundred and an impressive record dating back to before the Dominion War, but we don't have any information on it dating after the Klingons broke from the Khitomer Accords."

"Sensor data suggests their engines are down, but we will not know more until we get closer," L'Gran said, looking from Joval to his Captain. He watched her, gauging whether or not he should press a more tactical approach. She was a stubborn humanitarian and he viewed it as his duty to be her less trusting counsel. "Captain, we could be heading into a trap."

"I agree, Ma'am," Tanaka added. "There could be an entire fleet of Klingon ships waiting for us under cloak."

"Or they could genuinely need assistance," Shen countered with a shake of his head. "The Empire and the Federation fight openly. If they wanted to ambush a Federation starship they could just cross the border under cloak and do it directly, none of this laying out bait. It stinks of cowardice."

"It wouldn't be the first time," Joval offered, looking from Rhys to Shen and the others.

"No," Shen said, shaking his head vehemently. He straightened, squaring his shoulders in a standoffish fashion while crossing his arms over his chest. "It is just as likely their cloaking device has malfunctioned. Perhaps a catastrophic failure in engineering. I know Captain K'lagh, he is an honorable warrior and this is not his style."

"You've met him, then?" Rhys said, turning to look at Shen with a raised brow.

He nodded an affirmative. "Once at a summit on Cardassia, after the reconstruction. He was on the panel discussing the adaptation of the transwarp technology we learned about upon Voyager's return, and again, much later, at a bat'leth tournament."

"Ah, I remember that conference," Doctor Damar piped up, scratching his beard with his right hand. "I met a very handsome dabo boy there, took me for a lot of latinum and ran off with an Orion, but he knew how to give a massage."

Rhys stared at Damar and couldn't help but raise her brows at his candidness. Damar was never one to be shy about his adventures, she should have come to expect it now. She smiled at his ability to make a conversation random and looked at each of her staff in turn. "I know that we need to be cautious, but we also need to be mindful that they could genuinely need our assistance."

"After the last two months we've had the last thing I want to do is wind up in another fight," she added, looking at L'Gran, then Tanaka and Joval. "Keep the shields up, keep your eye for anything funny on the sensors."

L'Gran let out a rumble of uncertainty, stating, "We may not have a choice in the matter."

Rhys opened her mouth to respond but was interrupted by a chirp from the comm system. "Bridge to Captain Rhys."

"Go ahead, Ensign," she answered, looking at the group as a whole.

"Captain, we're coming up on the T'Acog."

"Take us out of warp, we're on our way. Rhys out," she said, while pushing back her chair. Rhys stood and looked at each of them, then began walking to the door. "Let's get to it, gentlemen."

As they filed out behind her Tanaka paused to let Shen, whose height dwarfed him, walk past him. He looked at him a moment as he did and then followed him out. "Commander, I did not know you liked bat'leth tournaments."

Shen cast him a furtive look, then he grinned. "One never knows what they will have at hand to beat their foe with, Lieutenant. Best to be prepared."


Chapter End Notes: Edit: Fixed formatting issue (I think).

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